Eight Ole Miss basketball players kneel during anthem in response to confederacy rally

Nathanael Gabler/The Oxford Eagle via AP
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Eight Ole Miss players kneeled during the national anthem in response to a confederacy rally that took place near the team’s arena in Oxford on Saturday night.

The teams were lined up at the free throw lines during the anthem, and six members of the team — K.J. Buffen, D.C. Davis, Brian Halums, Luis Rodriguez, Devontae Shuler and Bruce Stevens — knelt at the start of the song. Two other players — Breein Tyree and Franco Miller Jr. — later joined the demonstration during the final lines:

The rally took place just a couple of hundred feet away from the arena, and after the way that similar rallies devolved into violence in recent years — like what happened in Charlottesville in 2017 — the campus was on high-alert. There were counter-protests on campus on Thursday and Friday night, and during the rally itself, there were counter-protesters marching on the opposite side of the street.

Prior to the start of the season, Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis, who was hired this spring to replace Andy Kennedy, made it clear that he was not a fan of his players protesting in this manner.

“We’re going to be a respectful team that respects the flag and the National Anthem,” he said while listing the ways that he is going to run his program. “It’s who we’re going to be.”

After the game, Davis acknowledged that he did not know that the players on his team were going to stage a protest of their own on Saturday night.

“This was all about the hate groups that came to our community and tried to spread racism and bigotry,” he said. “It’s created a lot of tension. I think our players made an emotional decision to show these people they aren’t welcome on our campus. We respect our players’ freedom and ability to choose that.”

“They’re human. They’re students,” Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork said, according to Rivals. “They see what’s happening on our campus and these people that come here and spill hate and bigotry and racism, we don’t want them on our campus. Our players stood up for that. It had nothing to do with the anthem. It had nothing to do with anything beyond, ‘You know what, we don’t want those people here. They’re protesting during our game and that’s not right because that’s not the Ole Miss that I know.'”

“We talked to them about that in the locker room and that’s their expression. We support them.”

Davis is in a difficult position considering the job that he has.

On the one hand, he will be absolutely eviscerated in the media — and rightfully so — if he opts to punish his players for protesting a confederate rally happening outside the arena they are playing in. The majority of the players on the Ole Miss roster are black. The protest happening outside of the building where they were kneeling was in support of the confederacy, who tried to secede from the United States for the right to own black people as slaves.

He cannot punish them without columnists the country over calling for his job.

I, for the record, would be one of them.

That said, the heat that he is going to feel from his fan base will be just as strong for letting the players counter-protest during the playing of the anthem. Ole Miss’ nickname is “the Rebels,” as in confederate soldiers. It is safe to assume that a high percentage of the school’s fanbase leans one way politically. I think that if you asked Davis in private, he would tell you that one of the biggest reasons he said what he said in that introductory press conference was to curry favor with those very fans.

I know where I stand on this issue, and it is with the players brave enough to take a knee.

And I also know that it is much easier for me to say what I’m saying than it is for Kermit Davis.